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John O’Connor in the Spartan Art Project
July 23, 2016 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Admission by “Pass the Hat”/”Pay as Inspired”
In 1983, while living in Seattle, O’Connor sent a batch of his songs off to Flying Fish Records cold and–almost unheard of in the music business at that time–landed a contract to make an album of his powerful original songs. Songs For Our Times came out in 1984 and was named one of the best albums of the year by the Washington Post and several folk publications and radio stations.
John’s music has always been inseparable from his involvement in working class politics. He began his involvement in the labor movement right out of high school when he went to work in the factories of Waterloo, Iowa. An interest in folk music and Woody Guthrie led to a 40-year career as a folk singer and a cultural educator, performing in concerts, coffeehouses, schools and colleges, union education programs and political action events.
John recorded three albums with Flying Fish Records, one of them with the political quartet, ‘Shays Rebellion’, and a CD on the Chroma label. He also recorded a CD produced in conjunction with Collector Records called “We Ain’t Gonna Give It Back”, which is regarded by many as one of the best collections of original songs on the American labor movement. The late Joe Glazer said of John, “He writes the best songs about labor you are likely to hear.” The St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch said of John’s music that it is “songwriting…right out of the same well that slaked Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger,” while Britain’s Southern Rag has said that “John O’Connor deserves to be numbered with the all-time greats of contemporary folk music.”
John collaborated with the Seattle Folklore Society in the 1980s to create the coffeehouse venue known as the Rainy Town Folk Club, which featured such artists as Stan Rogers, Louis Killen, Guy Carawan, as well as many Northwest folk artists.
O’Connor has written scores of songs about labor struggles, Central America, the anti-apartheid movement, the anti-nuclear movement and as a solo artist and with his singing group Shays Rebellion, was a mainstay at political events throughout Puget Sound and beyond.
John’s songs about unions and workers have been sung widely throughout the United States and the world. Songs like The Triangle Fire, Carpal Tunnel, We Won, We Aint Gonna Give It Back and North by North have become regular additions to many singers connected with the labor movement. Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl sang We Ain’t Gonna Give It Back, as MacColl related, to perhaps a half a million miners and supporters during the great miner’s strike during the Thatcher years in England. The song was recorded on Ewan MacColl’s last recording.
Norman Blake, the legendary guitar player and traditional singer, toured with John’s song, On the Mountain Tonight for a decade. The song concerns guerilla fighters in El Salvador, and was perhaps the only political song in Blake’s expansive repertoire.
Some 40 years after walking through the gates of his first factory job, John is still stalwart in his focus of fighting for the working class and inspiring them with his music and their music. He has traveled the U.S. performing for labor education classes, high schools, colleges and folk audiences. His powerful songs have always, as Tony Harrah of the Guardian said, “mixed seamlessly with the old songs.” John’s songs have been recorded by numerous singers from around the world. In 2009, the French topical singer, Renaud, adapted and recorded O’Connor’s song of deindustrialization, North by North, which went to number one on the French charts.
Also an accomplished poet, John began sending out his emotionally charged poems in 1999 to the world of literary journals. Since then he has seen his work published in dozens of literary magazines. He has won the Associated Writer’s Program’s Prague Prize and has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. His book of poems, Half the Truth, won the Violet Reed Haas Poetry Award in 2015 and is available from Snake Nation Press.